CANBERRA (Reuters) - Police arrested seven people after scuffles broke out between Tibetan protesters and Chinese Australians as the Olympic torch relay began under heavy security in Canberra on Thursday.
After a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony the first runner, with two tracksuited Chinese torch handlers running alongside, handed the flame to an Australian eight rowing team to carry it across Lake Burley Griffin in front of parliament house.
Thousands of pro-Beijing supporters bused into Canberra for the relay through the capital, outnumbering the few hundred pro-Tibetan protesters.
China had hoped the torch’s progress would be a symbol of unity before the Beijing Games in August, but anti-China demonstrations protests have taken place in several countries over Beijing’s crackdown last month on protests in Tibet.
In Canberra, police carried out an unprecedented security crackdown and arrested seven people during scuffles.
Two pro-Tibet women charged the torch convoy as it neared parliament house and were dragged away by police, as one yelled: “They’re torturing my country”.
Another man who sat down on the road in front of the convoy shouting “stop killing Tibet” was quickly dragged away by police.
As the torch made its way along Canberra’s streets, police could be seen moving the two Chinese torch officials away from runners, as local authorities have said only Australian police would be in charge of security.
Unlike London, Paris or San Francisco, where torch bearers were jostled as they ran, in Canberra police barricades and the city’s wide boulevards ensured runners were unobstructed.
Before the relay began, pro-Beijing supporters chanted “One China”, as Chinese music and the drone of Aboriginal didgeridoos almost deafened the crowd. Dozens of Chinese and Olympic flags flew on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin and in front of the parliament building.
“This is a magnificent day for us today to show that Australia can have a peaceful rally. Watching overseas protests, I felt shamed that they can behave like that,” Wellington Lee from the Victorian (state) Chinese Association told Reuters.
Tibetan activists in Canberra, holding flags reading “Don’t Torch Tibet” and “Human Rights for Free Tibet”, said they planned a peaceful rally but were fearful of being harassed by the large number of pro-Beijing supporters.
“We are a bit afraid but we really just hope that our voice can be heard in Beijing,” said Tibetan Tenzin Dhargy.
“We will stay together and try to maintain the peace.”
Hundreds of extra police were called in to protect the flame, which will be carried by 80 runners through 16 km (10 miles) of barricaded streets.
“Today cannot be reduced to a slogan, it can not be contained in a protest chant, it is infinitely more complex than that,” said John Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory around Canberra.
“I uphold utterly the right of anyone who wishes to use today’s leg of the relay as an opportunity to have their voice heard,” Stanhope said.
“To be allowed to dissent, to speak freely, are markers of our democracy. We do not muzzle dissent, just because it might embarrass us or embarrass our friends. We hope our friendships are robust enough to bear a little plain speaking.”
(Additional reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Sanjeev Miuglani)
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